Dr. Diana West on "The Pill and Pollution"

Dr. Diana West on "The Pill and Pollution"

If your parents, and the parents of those closest to you, limited themselves to the two-child “ideal” family size, how many of you would be around today? Dr. Diana West posed this question to start off her presentation on the effects of hormonal birth control and why it might not be a desirable chemical when she spoke at AMU on February 22nd.

Besides the obvious effect on the social network, West’s presentation examined the environmental, biological, and behavioral effects of the pill. Her presentation was a literature review of studies on hormonal birth control, giving evidence of why, she argued, “it might not be the best health option for women.”

She began by going over the environmental effects, noting that hormone contamination in ecosystems (termed endocrine disruption) is a “hot topic” in environmental science today. One commentary she cited, “The Hidden Costs of Flexible Fertility” (Nature, 2012) was written by two prominent environmentalists who have been sounding the alarm on how the excretion of synthetic estrogen (EE2) in the urine of women taking hormonal birth control is affecting fish, amphibian, and reptile populations. Because EE2 cannot be adequately filtered from the sewage effluent, it contaminates lakes and rivers of industrialized areas. The aquatic animals exposed to EE2 become “feminized” (in which the males develop female sex organs) and the resulting loss of male fertility can sometimes cause entire aquatic populations to be diminished.

Moving on to summarize the biological effects, West gave evidence of a little publicized fact: the World Health Organization (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies the combined estrogen-progestogen oral contraceptives as Group 1 carcinogens (known to be carcinogenic to humans). Several recent studies, such as the epidemiological studies conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, reveal that several formulations of the hormonal pill, injectables, and intra-uterine devices are associated with increased breast cancer risk.

She finished her literature review by looking at studies that show how hormonal contraceptives alter human behavior. For example, women on the pill, when compared to women not on the pill, tend visually to prefer men with more feminine features (A.C. Little et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2013) and to prefer the scent of men who are more genetically similar to themselves (S.C. Roberts et al. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B, 2008). These studies suggest that the hormonal pill likely influences the attraction women feel toward men that they would not naturally choose.

Why is it that, in spite of the very large effects of this relatively small chemical, so many women continue to use the pill?

Citing a 2012 article in the journal Contraception, West showed how most of the reasons a woman gives for using hormonal birth control are fear-based. For example, in that study, some women mentioned that they don’t have time for childcare, might fall behind in their careers, can’t afford a baby, or lack support from others. There are methods of family planning, West went on, that do not involve hormonal contraception (for instance, NaPro Technology, Clearblue Easy Fertility Monitor, CycleBeads etc.). Also, these natural methods allow women to become empowered with information about their bodies and health, information that women do not have when the pill overrides their cycles. It is critical, she said, that we spread the word about these healthier options. Not only that, we should also share the good news of the Church’s teaching on love, life and marriage (see, for instance, Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, Paul VI’s Humanae Vitaeand John Paul II’s Theology of the Body).  

“It is important,” West said, “that we create an environment in which she [woman] no longer needs to be afraid.”

Dr. West is Postdoctoral Researcher in cancer biology. She earned her Ph.D. in chemistry. Her research on the effects of the pill is a side interest, a “dorky hobby,” she joked.